Whether the Occupy Wall Street movement and its local offshoots have been helped or hurt by the wrong-headed, needlessly brutal police tactics deployed against the occupiers by mayors and elite university executives across the country depends on your perspective. Americans who understand what the movement represents likely would give it credit for illuminating the enormous income inequality that mars the soul of the nation and wrecks our notions of equity, prosperity and a supposedly classless and upwardly mobile society.
As the protesters have emphasized, their initiative is to advance economic justice for "the other 99 percent" of Americans -- not just the top echelon of the top 1 percent of Americans whose fortunes Congress -- mainly Republicans -- so assiduously protects and nurtures.
The actual figures reflecting unfair economic treatment are not hard to come by. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute reports that the top 1 percent of Americans now possess greater net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent. That makes America more divided by a financial aristocracy than any of the European nations that were once know for such class divisions. The income of the top 1 percent, another study shows, grew 10 times faster in the 2002-2007 period than the income of the bottom 90 percent.
It's not really the top 1 percent that does so well. Though most of the people in this super-wealthy category make more than $1 million annually, it's the top tenth of the top 1 percent -- the megamillionaires and billionaires -- that has accrued truly enormous wealth under the Republican-driven tax-cut policies for the wealthy of the last few decades.
This ultra-rich slice takes fully 50 percent of the nation's capital-gains and the rich benefits of the Bush tax-cuts on those gains. Thus its effective tax on income is far lower, as a percentage, than that most any secretary or working class American would pay.
Other figures suggest the larger-picture of our top-heavy income disparities. The top 20 percent of Americans own more than 85 percent of the nation's wealth, while the poorest 20 percent own just one-tenth of 1 percent.
And the ultra rich, under unfairly advantageous tax policies, are getting richer faster than ever. From 1992 to 2007, the incomes of the top 400 ultra-wealthy earners saw their incomes increase by nearly 400 percent, while their average tax rate fell by 37 percent. The incomes of the bottom 90 percent of American households, of course, either barely stayed even with inflation in that period, or fell on an inflation-adjusted basis.
If ordinary Americans were making fair economic progress, and enjoying regular wage and benefit increases, the divide between middle class and ultra-wealthy wouldn't be such an issue. But that's not the case. Too many ceo's are make multi-million-dollar salaries and bonuses mainly by freezing wages, cutting employees and whacking benefits.
Income inequality is at its highest level since 1928. And Republicans want to worsen it by cutting Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and other vital social programs while extending unsustainable tax cuts for the super-rich. None of this makes sense, or is just.
That's why the scene at the University of California-Davis, where campus police Lt. John Pike casually doused a line of peacefully sitting Occupy protesters with a sickening bomb of pepper-spray about their heads and faces, has become a potent Internet symbol for the occupation movement. At its essence is the contrast of government lackeys acting to protect the interests of America's corporate and financial zillionaires over those of citizens urging reform of this nation's crippling income disparities, and the broad social injustice that flows from it.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has served to illuminate the nation's economic inequalities. It's occupation tactics may be running out of steam, but the message has been heard. The movement's challenge now is to find a more sustainable way to rally Americans around this common cause.